by Umair Haque Eudaimonia Oct 10, 2018
Sometimes, when I write scary essays, I encourage you not to read them. This one’s different. It’s going to be brutal, scary, jarring, and alarming. But if you want my thoughts on the future, then read away.
It strikes me that the planet’s fate is now probably sealed. We have just a decade in which to control climate change — or goodbye, an unknown level of catastrophic, inescapable, runaway warming is inevitable. The reality is: we’re probably not going to make it. It’s highly dubious at this juncture that humanity is going to win the fight against climate change.
Yet that is for a very unexpected — yet perfectly predictable — reason: the sudden explosion in global fascism — which in turn is a consequence of capitalism having failed as a model of global order. If, when, Brazil elects a neo-fascist who plans to raze and sell off the Amazon — the world’s lungs — then how do you suppose the fight against warming will be won? It will be set back by decades — decades…we don’t have.
America’s newest Supreme Court justice is already striking down environmental laws — in his first few days in office — but he will be on the bench for life…beside a President who hasn’t just decimated the EPA, but stacked it with the kind of delusional simpletons who think global warming is a hoax. Again, the world is set by back by decades…it doesn’t have. Do you see my point yet? Let me make it razor sharp.
My friends, catastrophic climate change is not a problem for fascists — it is a solution. History’s most perfect, lethal, and efficient one means of genocide, ever, period. Who needs to build a camp or a gas chamber when the flood and hurricane will do the dirty work for free? Please don’t mistake this for conspiracism: climate change accords perfectly with the foundational fascist belief that only the strong should survive, and the weak — the dirty, the impure, the foul — should perish. That is why neo-fascists do not lift a finger to stop climate change — but do everything they can to in fact accelerate it, and prevent every effort to reverse or mitigate it.
But I want to tell you the sad, strange, terrible story of how we got here. Call it a lament for a planet, if you like. You see, not so long ago, we — the world — were optimistic that climate change could be managed, in at least some way. The worst impacts probably avoided, forestalled, escaped — if we worked together as a world. But now we are not so sure at all. Why is that? What happened? Fascism happened — at precisely the wrong moment. That shredded all our plans. But fascism happened because capitalism failed — failed for the world, but succeeded wildly for capitalists.
Now, this will be a subtle story, because I want to tell it to you the way it should be told. Let me begin with an example, and zoom out from there.
The world is in the midst of a great mass extinction — one of just a handful in history. Now, if we had been serious, at any point, really, about preventing climate catastrophe, we would have made an effort to “price in” this extinction — with a new set of global measures for GDP and profit and costs and tariffs and taxes and so on. But we didn’t, so all these dead beings, these animals and plants and microbes and so on — strange and wonderful things we will never know — are “unpriced” in the foolish, self-destructive economy we have made. Life is literally free to capitalism, and so capitalism therefore quite naturally abuses it and destroys it, in order to maximize its profits, and that is how you get a spectacular, eerie, grim mass extinction in half a century, of which there have only been five in all of previous history.
But biological life was not the only unpaid cost — “negative externality” — of capitalism. It was just one. And these unpaid costs weren’t to be additive: they were to multiply, exponentiate, snarl upon themselves — in ways that we would come to find impossible to then untangle. (And all this was what economists and thinkers, especially American ones, seemed to whistle at and walk away, anytime someone suggested it.)
You see, capitalism promised people — the middle classes which had come to make up the modern world — better lives. But it had no intention of delivering — its only goal was to maximize profits for the owners of capital, not to make anyone else one iota richer. So first it ate through people’s towns and cities and communities, then through social systems, then through their savings, and finally, through their democracies. Even if people’s incomes “rose”, cleverly, the prices they paid for the very same things which capitalism sold back to them with the other hand, the very things they were busy producing, rose even more — and so middle classes began to stagnate, while inequality exploded. Let’s specify the unpaid costs in question: trust, connection, cohesion, belonging, meaning, purpose, truth itself.
These were social costs — not environmental ones, like the mass extinction above. And I will make the link between the two clear in just a moment. First I want you to understand their effect.
A sense of frustration, of resignation, of pessimism came to sweep the world. People lost trust in their great systems and institutions. They turned away from democracy, and towards authoritarianism, in a great, thunderous wave, which tilted the globe on its very axis. The wave rippled outward from history’s greatest epicenter of human stupidity, America, like a supersonic tsunami, crossing Europe, reaching Asia’s shores, crashing south into Brazil, cresting far away in Australia. Nations fell like dominoes to a new wave of fascists, who proclaimed the same things as the old ones — reichs and camps and reigns of the pure. People began to turn on those below them — the powerless one, the different one, the Mexican, the Jew, the Muslim— in the quest for just the sense of superiority and power, the fortune and glory, capitalism had promised them, but never delivered.
The capitalists had gotten rich — unimaginably rich. They were richer than kings of old. But capitalism had imploded into fascism. History laughed at the foolishness of people who once again believed, like little children hearing a fairy tale, that capitalism — which told people to exploit and abuse one another, not hold each other close, mortal and frail things that they are — was somehow ever going to benefit them.
Now. Let me connect the dots of capitalism’s unpaid social and environmental costs, and how they are linked, not additively, 2+2=5, but with the mathematics of catastrophe.
When we tell the story of how capitalism imploded into fascism, it will go something like this: the social costs of capitalism meant that democracy collapsed into neo-fascism — and neo-fascism made it unlikely, if not outright impossible, that the world could do anything at all about climate change, in the short window it had left, at the precise juncture it needed to act most. Do you see the link? The terrible and tragic irony? How funny and sad it is?
The social costs of capitalism weren’t just additive to the environmental costs — they were more like multiplicative, snarled upon themselves, like a great flood meeting a great hurricane. The social costs exponentiated the environmental, making them now impossible to reduce, pay, address, manage. 2+2 didn’t equal 4 — it equalled infinity, in this case. Both together made a system that spiralled out of control. Wham! The planet’s fate was being sealed, by capitalism imploding into fascism — which meant that a disintegrating world could hardly work together anymore to solve its greatest problem of all.
Let me sharpen all that a little. By 2005, after a great tussle, much of the world had agreed on a plan to reduce carbon emissions — the Kyoto Protocol. It was just barely enough — barely — to imagine that one day climate change might be lessened and reduced enough to be manageable. Still, there was one notable holdout — as usual, America. Now, at this point, the world, which was in a very different place politically than it is today, imagined that with enough of the usual diplomatic bickering and horse-trading, maybe, just maybe, it would get the job done.
And yet by 2010 or so, the point of all this, which was to create a global carbon pricing system had still not been accomplished — in large part thanks to America, whose unshakeable devotion to capitalism meant that such a thing was simply politically impossible. So by this point the world was behind — and yet, one could still imagine a kind of success. Maybe an American President would come along who would see sense. Maybe progress was going in the right direction, generally. After all, slowly, the world was making headway, towards less carbon emissions, towards a little more cooperation, here and there.
And then — Bang! America was the first nation to fall to the neo fascist wave. Instead of a President who might have taken the country into a decarbonized future, Americans elected the king of the idiots (no, please don’t give me an apologia for the electoral college.) This king of the idiots did what kings of idiots do: he lionized, of all things…coal. He questioned whether climate change was…real. He packed the government with lobbyists and cronies who were quite happy to see the world burn, if it meant a penthouse overlooking a drowned Central Park. He broke up with allies, friends, and partners. Do you see the point? The idea of a decarbonizing future was suddenly turned on its head. It had been a possibility yesterday — but now, it was becoming an impossibility.
Before the neofascist wave, the world might have indeed “solved” climate change. Maybe not in the hard sense that life would go on tomorrow as it does today — but in the soft sense that the worst and most vicious scenarios were mostly outlandish science fiction. That is because before the neofascist wave, we could imagine nations cooperating, if slowly, reluctantly, in piecemeal ways, towards things like protecting life, reducing carbon, pricing in the environment, and so on. These things can only be done through global cooperation, after all.
But after the neofascist wave, global cooperation — especially of a genuinely beneficial kind, not a predatory kind — began to become less and less possible by the day. The world was unravelling. When countries were trashing the United Nations and humiliating their allies and proclaiming how little they needed the world (all to score minor-league wins for oligarchs, who cashed in their chips, laughing )— how could such a globe cooperate more then? It couldn’t — and it can’t. So the neofascist wave which we are now in also means drastically less global cooperation — but less global cooperation means incalculably worse climate change.
So now let’s connect all the dots. Capitalism didn’t just rape the planet laughing, and cause climate change that way. It did something which history will think of as even more astonishing. By quite predictably imploding into fascism at precisely the moment when the world needed cooperation, it made it impossible, more or less, for the fight against climate change to gather strength, pace, and force.
It wasn’t just the environmental costs of capitalism which melted down the planet — it was the social costs, too, which, by wrecking global democracy, international law, cooperation, the idea that nations should work together, made a fractured, broken world which no longer had the capability to act jointly to prevent the rising floodwaters and the burning summers.
(Now, it’s at this point that Americans will ask me, a little angrily, for “solutions”. Ah, my friends. When will you learn? Don’t you remember my point?
There are no solutions, because these were never “problems” to begin with. The planet, like society, is a garden, which needs tending, watering, care. The linkages between these things — inequality destabilizing societies making global cooperation less possible — are not things we can fix overnight, by turning a nut or a bolt, or throwing money at them. They never were. They are things we needed to see long ago, to really reject together, and invest in, nurture, protect, defend, for decades — so that capitalism did not melt down into fascism, and take away all our power to fight for our worlds, precisely when we would need it most.
But we did not do that. We were busy “solving problems”. Problems like…hey, how can I get my laundry done? Can I get my package delivered in one hour instead of one day? Wow — you mean I don’t have to walk down the street to get my pizza anymore? Amazing!! In this way, we solved all the wrong problems, if you like, but I would say that we solved mechanical problems instead of growing up as people.
Things like climate change and inequality and fascism are not really “problems” — they are emergent processes, which join up, in great tendrils of ruin, each piling on the next, which result from decades of neglect, inaction, folly, blindness. We did not plant the seeds, or tend to our societies, economies, democracies, or planet carefully enough — and now we are harvesting bitter ruin instead. Maybe you see my point. Or maybe you don’t see my point at all. I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a tough one to catch sight of.)
The tables have turned. The problem isn’t climate change anymore, and the solution isn’t global cooperation — at least given today’s implosive politics. The problem is you — if you are not one of the chosen, predatory few. And the solution to the problem of you is climate change. To the fascists, that is. They are quite overjoyed to have found the most spectacular and efficient and lethal engine of genocide and devastation known to humankind, which is endless, free natural catastrophe. Nothing sorts the strong from the weak more ruthlessly like a flooded planet, a thundering sky, a forest in flames, a parched ocean. A man with a gun is hardly a match for a planet on fire.
I think this much becomes clearer by the year: we have failed, my friends, to save our home. How funny that we are focused, instead, on our homelands. It would be funny, disgraceful, and pathetic of me to say: is there still time to save ourselves? That is the kind of nervous, anxious selfishness Americans are known for — and it is only if we reject it, really, that we learn the lesson of now.
Let us simply imagine, instead, despite all the folly and stupidity and ruin of this age, the strongmen and the weak-minded, in those dark and frightening nights when the rain pours and the thunder roars, we might still light a candle for democracy, for freedom, and for truth. The truth is that we do not deserve to be saved if we do not save them first.
(Header image: A pig stands on the roof of a car to escape floodwaters in North Carolina following Hurricane Florence. Lagoons contain brazillians of gallons of pig shit and coal ash in NC—courtesy of neoliberal deregulation and conservative-induced agnotology.)